Eldon and Regina Roth didn’t start Beef Products Inc. because they wanted to win a major libel settlement. Like other entrepreneurs, they planned to make an honest profit—and also to build a business that would supply consumers with safe products at fair prices and give workers the jobs they need.
Then Disney-owned ABC News came along and nearly destroyed it all through a campaign of lies—malicious attacks that possibly are costing Disney $177 million in a legal settlement, if press reports this week are accurate.
The Roths have promised to give a portion of the funds to help former employees who lost their jobs because of the journalistic malpractice.
“Eldon wanted to do it,” Regina said in a Rotary speech in July, according to the Sioux City Journal. “He thought it was the right thing to do.”
This won’t make up for the massive injustice done to the Roths, their displaced employees, and the American meat industry—but it helps, and perhaps it will highlight the bad ways in which an irresponsible media can distort public perceptions about safe food.
The controversy began in 2012, when the ABC News aired a segment on a meat product that has gone by several different names, including “trim beef,” “boneless lean beef trimmings,” and “lean finely textured beef.”
ABC News correspondent Jim Avila chose to call it something else: “pink slime.”
The story he filed will be remembered as one of the sloppiest pieces of journalism in history. And that’s saying something.
In a report that ran for about two and a half minutes, Avila made it sound as though BPI, meat producers, and grocery stores were poisoning the public through a toxic mixture of greed and negligence. He gave camera time to fierce critics of the food industry, but somehow couldn’t come up with a single defender of BPI’s practice.
He should have called me. I’ve been standing up for BPI ever since it fell under attack and I gladly would have interviewed with him.
The most important fact to know about trim beef is that it’s a product of sustainability—the idea that we always should try to conserve our resources by doing more with less.
BPI’s innovation was to come up with a new way to extract beef from carcasses. It rejected the idea that the final scraps of beef—the tiniest bits that are the hardest to remove from bone—should become waste product. It figured out a way to make them food.
Instead of celebrating an act of ingenuity, ABC News adopted a slur—“pink slime”—and compared trim beef to dog food. It also suggested that this forward-thinking modernization was unhealthy and fraudulent.
This wasn’t fair-and-balanced journalism. It was sheer propaganda.
Unfortunately, it worked. Misled by ABC News, the public recoiled in horror from “pink slime.” Sensitive to the controversy, grocers, restaurants, schools, and other beef buyers rejected anything that contained trim beef.
For BPI, the result was ruin. Its revenues plunged by 80 percent, forcing it to shut down processing plants in Iowa, Kansas, and Texas. Hundreds of people lost their jobs.
So BPI sued, seeking $1.9 billion in damages—an amount that had the potential to triple to $5.7 billion under a food-libel law in South Dakota.
In the United States, libel cases are hard to win because the press enjoys so many freedoms. This is a good thing: We should always err on the side of our First Amendment rights.
Yet the press can abuse its great privileges. When the abuses are as reckless and harmful as those of Jim Avila and ABC News—that is, when they cross over into extreme malice—victims have a chance at restitution.
BPI’s lawsuit finally went to trial in June. A few weeks into the deliberations, ABC News decided to surrender. It settled the case, forking over an undisclosed amount of money to BPI. Everyone interpreted the result as a big win for the plaintiffs. “There were a lot of zeroes,” said Regina Roth in her Rotary address.
Disney’s just-released quarterly financial report suggests the figure is $177 million.
The future of trim beef remains uncertain. We know that some of the settlement may provide financial assistance to workers who lost their jobs—a generous act of charity on the part of the Roths. We should also hope that it helps BPI rebuild a business, allowing many of these workers to get their jobs back.
That sounds a bit like a happy ending—something that the owners of ABC News, in their headquarters at Disney, certainly understand.